Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Fastest Hunk of Junk in the Galaxy Flies Again!

Sixteen years ago (good lord!), I was working my very first editorial/proofreading type job, at a company that produced certification tests for skilled trades that require a state license… plumbers, electricians, cosmetologists, that sort of thing. The company had just provided Internet access to all employees — quite a novelty at the time, at least for me — and I took full advantage of this powerful new tool to seek out every scrap of information I could find on the most important issue of the day: the new Star Wars movie coming out in 1999, the first one since Return of the Jedi had closed the original trilogy way back when I was in middle school.

Blogs were in their infancy then — I think Lileks and Scalzi had already set up shop in their respective fiefdoms, but that was about all — and there was no social media as we now know it. But there were message boards on every conceivable topic, and there was the official site as well as an incredible fan page called (which I’m very pleased to learn is still going strong, both on its original site as well as on Twitter and Facebook!), and I skimmed through them every morning before getting busy with my day’s work. I had downloaded fan-made wallpapers and a countdown-clock widget that silently ticked away the months until opening day.

But all of this was small potatoes next to the unprecedented opportunity provided by this new-fangled ‘net thingie one day in November 1998: to see the first trailer for the new movie without having to go to a theater. Remember, there was no YouTube at the time. This was big. As in, that’s-no-moon-that’s-a-space-station big. It took several hours to download the trailer across a painfully slow connection to an unoccupied terminal (my boss’ machine, if I recall correctly — I think she had the day off), and I sweated away the time working in my cubicle, getting up every ten minutes or so to check the progress, then going back to the proofreading and document formatting that suddenly seemed so utterly unimportant to me. I can’t imagine how many errors I made that day — Master Yoda would surely have chided me for not having my mind on where I was or what I was doing. But finally — finally! — the trailer was complete. I put on headphones so as not to reveal myself to my coworkers, who didn’t know I’d been sneaking into Cristina’s cubicle all day, and with a dry mouth and a pounding heart, I clicked “play.”

The quality was… not great. The image was tiny, just a postage-stamp really, and it kept breaking down into blocky pixels or outright freezing. But I was still catching glimpses of haunting imagery: mounted warriors materializing out of a mist, a chrome starship landed on a desert plain that could only have been Tatooine, ships flying over an alien city… exotic creatures, vehicles, and costumes, all of it new and yet weirdly familiar. And most importantly, I could hear. The audio was uninterrupted, and I could hear that familiar score by John Williams that still produces a Pavlovian response in my adrenal glands, and the buzz of lightsabers, the crack and pow of blasterfire, the roar of starship engines, and a line of dialog that seemed like I’d been waiting my whole life to hear: “Anakin Skywalker, meet… Obi Wan Kenobi.” And then Samuel L. Jackson, baddest of the bad, talking about some prophecy, followed by Yoda, my beloved Yoda, the irascible little Muppet whose zen-lite aphorisms I’d been parroting for years, making a speech that sent shivers down my spine: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate… leads to suffering.” And then a rising crescendo ending in the title card: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

I remember sitting back in my chair after that first viewing and feeling twitchy with adrenaline. I felt like I had when I was nine and saw a TV commercial for the 1979 re-release of the original Star Wars, the one that had lodged in my brain like a triple-barbed fishhook a couple years before and still hasn’t let go of me even now in 2014; I saw that commercial and without even thinking about it, rose to my feet and ran as fast as I possibly could, so fast I nearly lost control and toppled face-forward from my momentum, clear out to the back pasture where my parents were working on a fence. They’d thought something was wrong when I raced up at that speed, thought I’d hurt myself or set the house on fire or something. I remember their blank expressions when I told them that everything was fine, Star Wars was coming back! For some reason, they just didn’t share my enthusiasm.

I watched the Phantom Menace trailer four more times before I finally went back to my own desk and tried, half-heartedly, to get back to work. It was Star Wars, all right. After all those years, it was a goddamned new Star Wars movie. The endless arguing about that movie and the ones to follow, the curdling of the Star Wars fan experience, was still far off in the future and, at the time, completely unimaginable to me. For that day, that afternoon, life was good. I was giddy. And I felt young.

I never thought I’d feel quite that same way about Star Wars again. Until this morning.

I’m sure everyone has already seen it by now, but let’s go ahead and watch it again. Just because. Ladies and gentlemen, the first teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens:

I’ll confess, my first thought as the trailer begins was, “Ah hell, Tatooine again? Can’t we see some place new this time?” And then when the first two human faces we see are an African-American man and a woman, my inner cynic said, “Oh, there’s the response to the criticism about a lack of diversity in the Star Wars universe” (which isn’t to say I don’t approve of increasing the diversity of Star Wars, but the prominent placement of these two in this trailer struck me as a little too on-the-nose, as if JJ Abrams is screaming out “Look! Look what I’ve done!”). But then that clunky-looking speeder bike takes off with another one of those great throbbing Star Wars engine sounds… and there are X-Wings skimming across a mountain lake at incredible speeds… and a wicked-looking medieval-longsword-style lightsaber… and John Williams’ brassy fanfare pressing hard on my pleasure button, and then… oh my lord, it’s the Falcon, climbing and diving and spiraling like never before, and who cares if the radar dish is square now, it’s my beautiful hunk-of-the-junk Falcon, and the adrenaline is surging and holy shit, I’m nine again running out to the back pasture of the Internet to tell everybody I know that Star Wars is coming back, after all these years, it’s a goddamned new Star Wars movie!

Yes, I’m easily excited. You’re just noticing?

It remains to be seen if the actual story is any good, of course, if our original-trilogy heroes will be integral or just appear in glorified cameos, if The Force Awakens will move the Star Wars mythos forward in any meaningful way or just be a superficial compilation of action set-pieces designed to satisfy a generation of rabid fanboys whose main priority is whether things look cool… but for the first time since hearing that JJ Abrams was attached to this project, I am cautiously optimistic. Judging an entire movie from a minute and a half of out-of-context footage is dangerous, I know, but it looks like the directorial quirks that so annoyed me on other Abrams films are absent here (I caught only a couple of lens flares during the Falcon sequence, when it would be natural to see such effects as the camera passes the sun… or suns, I suppose, since we’re flying over Tatooine). And of course the writing team that made such a hash of my other beloved space-opera franchise on Abrams’ Star Trek didn’t have anything to do with The Force Awakens (I’m still not impressed with that title, by the way). So maybe, just maybe…

In the meantime, whatever comes a year from now, I’m savoring today, this feeling, this excitement, this reminder of youth.


Postscript: Incidentally, the Phantom Menace trailer I talk about above was a huge milestone in the way movies are now marketed as well as how the Internet now functions. It’s a pretty fascinating story, actually… read more about it here.)


A New Way to Save Your Family Food Traditions

For most people, I imagine, Thanksgiving is all about the convergence of family and food. It’s one of the few times of the year when certain dishes make their appearance, and more often than not, those dishes have come down the generations, following familial lines as surely as the gene for eye color or hair texture, and with much the same result: your family’s food traditions are unique to your family. Sure, everyone has eyes… but your eyes might be your Great Uncle Frank’s eyes… and a particular dish might be something that lots of families enjoy, but your family has a way of making it that’s unique to you and yours.

For example, Anne has spent much of the day making from-scratch rolls to go with our holiday meal this afternoon… but they’re not just “from-scratch rolls” in her mind. They’re her Grandma Memmott’s rolls. And while Anne has her grandmother’s recipe (lovingly preserved in a battered old cookbook filled with recipes from all the ladies of the small-town LDS ward where her grandmother lived), it’s taken her some experimentation to figure out exactly how to make the recipe work, because her grandma is no longer here to walk her through it. The inevitable passage of time has made the connection with her family tradition a bit more tenuous, a bit more imperfect.

But we’re living in a time when technology can help resolidify those connections. At least, that’s one of the exciting possibilities of a new venture under development by my friend Jill and her husband Torgny. It’s a digital cookbook called Foodles.

Now, before you say “meh, another recipe site, like there aren’t a million of those,” hear me out.

Foodles is a recipe site, but it’s got a lot of built-in functionality that is unlike any such site I’ve run across before. One feature I find especially exciting is the ability to embed personal notes, photographs and even video into the recipe. Imagine if Anne had video of her grandma actually making these rolls, walking the viewer through all the steps that she used to follow (but maybe didn’t think to write down when that ward cookbook was compiled, for whatever reason). Best of all, imagine being to relive time spent in the kitchen with your loved ones who are longer here. This has to the potential to preserve more than a list of ingredients; it can preserve the personal nuances that truly make a dish “Grandma’s,” or “Uncle Frank’s,” or even “Anne’s.” And it can ensure that your loved ones live on in some form, right there in the kitchen with you.

Jill and Torgny have a lot of other good ideas, too — tools that add convenience and help modernize some recipes, like nutritional facts that adjust automatically to show you what happens if you replace ingredients. There are privacy settings so you can limit your recipes and other content only to your family, or share them with the world. And you can create an actual printed cookbook for your family, too. I sincerely think there’s a lot of potential here.

But of course they need help to make it a reality. I know the Christmas shopping frenzy is about to begin in only a few short hours and money is always tight this time of the year, so I hope you’ll forgive the sales pitch… but at the same time, when better to bring this up than on Thanksgiving Day, when we are the most conscious of family and food? I urge everyone reading this to check out their Kickstarter page… watch the video of Jill explaining all this in her own words, read the details for yourself, and consider backing them, if you can.

And now, I’m going to go sop up some gravy with those Grandma Memmott rolls…  Happy Thanksgiving, y’all, and happy shopping if Black Friday is your thing (personally, I plan to watch a lot of DVDs tomorrow!)


Ian McKellan Understands Fans

ian-mckellen-velvet-and-smokeOne of my favorite media personalities in recent years has been Sir Ian McKellen, the Shakespearean-trained actor who attained fame relatively late in life with his spot-on portrayals of two icons of geekery: Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr, the sympathetic villain of the X-Men films, and the wizard Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. In addition to these enormously popular movies, McKellen has also built a wide following through fairly regular posts to Facebook and Twitter, in which he unfailingly radiates warmth and good humor. (His “tourists in New York” photos with friend and fellow icon Patrick Stewart quickly became a viral phenomenon last spring, because they were just so damn charming.)

I think one of the big reasons he’s become so beloved, though, is because he understands fans and what makes us tick. Rather than being put off by our enthusiasm, he embraces it… because he gets where it’s coming from. From an interview I recently ran across:

“When people are waiting outside the stage door to see me, these days they want a ‘selfie’, and you just put your arm round them and you discover they are shaking.


“You must not take this personally because you may get the wrong idea about yourself, but it is a huge moment for people when they see made flesh an image that they are familiar with and that they like.


“Well, I am just the same. I would be exactly the same if I were to meet Brad Pitt or George Clooney.


“I am sure I would be like a little groupie.”

I’ve attended four good-sized fan conventions in the last year, largely for the purpose of meeting celebrities. Not everybody understands why I do it, or how I can justify throwing down a not-insignificant amount of cash to get my photo taken with some actor and spend a few seconds making small talk with them. (To be honest, I’ve wondered that more than a few times myself!)  McKellan explains it about as well as I’ve ever managed to: “It is a huge moment for people when they see made flesh an image that they are familiar with and that they like.” And that’s all there is to it, really… this image I have enjoyed and admired and learned from and been comforted by suddenly becomes tangible. And it’s… huge. It’s emotionally moving. It’s a thrill. Especially if the flesh-and-blood person turns out to be friendly or kind or appears to be genuinely interested in me. (I’ve had that experience a number of times, and it’s incredibly… I guess the best word is “validating.”)

It pleases me that McKellan understands… and it amuses me that he says he’d do the same thing for the celebs he admires. He’s human. He’s one of us. I hope I get to meet him myself some day… even if it’s only for 30 seconds of small talk and a selfie…



I feel like I ought to write something about what’s going on in Ferguson, and the general state of race relations six years into a presidency that was supposed to mark the beginning of “post-racial America,” but honestly… I can’t. I just fucking can’t.

Sorry about the language. I know it bothers some of my readers. But there’s no other way to express the weary depths of what I’m feeling right now. I am so thoroughly disheartened. And I’m also tired. Tired of the grinding wheels of conflict and argument and snark that keep the Internet chugging around in circles. Tired of endlessly yammering talking heads spreading fear and ginning up outrage on 24-hour “news” channels. Tired of half the country thinking the other half comes from Bizarro World, and the constant struggle-to-the-death clash of philosophies. Most of all, I’m tired of the utter intractability of this country’s biggest problems: racism and gun violence. It doesn’t seem to matter what we do or what our leaders say, or who’s actually on the side of justice in any given iteration of this story, we always end up back in the exact same nightmarish place, with a kid lying dead in the street, and cops dressed like Imperial stormtroopers lobbing tear-gas grenades at angry mobs, and buildings in flames.

So I hope you’ll forgive me for feeling like anything I might end up typing here is an utter waste of time and energy. I may as well stick to the innocuous, superficial pop-cultural nonsense. Either way, none of it will make a damn bit of difference. I won’t change anyone’s opinion about anything, or enlighten anyone to a new way of thinking, or even manage to clarify my own thinking. The best I can hope for is to provide my handful of readers with a momentary distraction and possibly a morsel of entertainment. I have no illusions about my words having any greater impact than that. And that’s the most disheartening thing of all… writing is my greatest talent, and it accomplishes nothing.

This just might be a fireplace-and-whisky sort of night.


In Memoriam: Glen A. Larson

BSG_glen-larson-titlecardI’ve was saddened last weekend to learn of the passing of Glen A. Larson, the writer and producer behind many of the television series that occupied real estate in my imagination as I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man, Quincy, M.E. (the original forensic police procedural!), The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Knight Rider, The Fall Guy, and of course Magnum, P.I. I even have a soft spot for several of his lesser efforts: B.J. and the Bear, Manimal, Automan, and Cover Up, which I remember as a pretty terrific series that was derailed by the heartbreaking and utterly pointless death of its costar, a hunky young actor with a bright future named Jon-Erik Hexum. (Incidentally, why isn’t that show on DVD? Surely I’m not the only one who remembers it with some fondness? Or for that matter, how about the TV movie-of-the-week Hexum made with Joan Collins, The Making of a Male Model? Surely that’s got a big enough cult following to warrant a manufacture-on-demand disc?)

Without question, though, the Glen Larson production that made the biggest impression on me was his epic space-opera  Battlestar Galactica. Premiering in September 1978, a little over a year after Star Wars took the world by storm, Galactica was widely dismissed by critics as a rip-off of a hit movie. In fact, 20th Century Fox actually sued Larson and Universal Studios for plagiarism, because they apparently believed George Lucas had a monopoly on space-based stories featuring robots, dogfighting fighter craft launched from gigantic warships, ray-gun shootouts with armor-clad villains, and planetary-scale holocausts. Never mind that these were all common genre tropes stretching back to the pulp magazines of the 1920s, or that Lucas himself had borrowed heavily from Frank Herbert’s Dune. And never mind as well that Larson had been shopping around the core concept that became Galactica — originally titled Adam’s Ark — since the late 1960s. The suit was eventually settled, but Larson never overcame his reputation as a hack (the notoriously testy science-fiction author Harlan Ellison once called him “Glen Larceny”). Several of his later shows didn’t help matters: Automan was very obviously inspired by Tron, and Manimal tried to cash in on the “bubbling face” transformation effects seen in An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. But I’ve always thought the term “rip-off” was overly harsh, and especially unfair in the case of Galactica. Even to a nine-year-old boy, it was pretty obvious that Galactica was inspired less by Star Wars than by various far-out ideas that were swirling around in the cultural consciousness of the ’70s — pseudoscientific woo-woo stuff like Atlantis and the “ancient astronauts” described in von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, and the craze for all things Egyptian in the wake of the touring King Tut exhibitions — as well as by Larson’s own Mormon beliefs.

Yes, what you’ve heard all these years is true: Glen A. Larson was a Mormon, and many of the underpinnings of Battlestar Galactica can be traced to LDS folklore, if not actual scripture. The Tribes of Man, the Lost 13th Tribe, the planet Kobol as the birthplace of humanity (actually Kolob, in Mormon cosmology), referring to a wedding ceremony as a “sealing” and the civilian leadership as the Quorum (or, in some episodes, the Council) of the Twelve… that’s all straight out of Mormonism. And if those elements aren’t big enough clues to Larson’s inspiration, consider the mysterious Beings of Light seen in some of the show’s later episodes. These ethereal creatures take a benevolent interest in the Galactica and her fleet of refugees, and memorably tell our heroes “As you are now, we once were; as we are now, you may become,” suggesting they evolved from flesh-and-blood humanlike bodies into some kind of higher form. That’s the Mormon conception of angels in a nutshell.

I remember talking with my friends in elementary school about this stuff while Battlestar was originally airing. At the time, and for many years after, I really didn’t want to accept the connection between the church and one of my favorite TV shows. I don’t know if it still goes on much, but there was a time when Mormons were constantly claiming (often incorrectly) that one celebrity or another was a member of the church, as a way of demonstrating that Mormons were cool, too, I suppose, and pointing out elements of Battlestar borrowed from Mormonism always struck me as an extension of that. But of course I was wrong, and in later years as I became a more educated and sophisticated viewer, I could no longer deny the obvious. And honestly, I’ve now decided as an adult that the show’s Mormon roots might actually be part of its appeal for me. I never officially became a member of the LDS faith myself, but I grew up immersed in it — believe it or not, I did occasionally attend services as a child, and I’ve always been surrounded by family and friends who are members — so all of those elements are familiar to me, and even comforting, in a way. Battlestar Galactica, on some fundamental level, simply feels like home to me. That’s why I can overlook its many flaws, and I suspect that’s also is a big part of why I just couldn’t get on board with Ron Moore’s remake a few years ago. Well, that plus the fact that I tend to dislike remakes on general principle. But the Battlestar “reimagining” or whatever Moore called it really rubbed me wrong right from the get-go, and the best explanation I can offer for that is that the old series felt like home, and the new one… just didn’t.

The other big reason I didn’t care for the remake was because I feel that Moore missed (or deliberately abandoned) the core concept that really lay at the heart of the original. Beneath all the special effects and the space-opera explosions and pyramid-power nonsense, Battlestar Galactica was about family. The three main characters — Commander Adama, played by Lorne Greene, his son Captain Apollo, and Apollo’s best friend, the maverick Lt. Starbuck — comprised a solid and loving family unit. (Adama also had a daughter, Athena, played by the lovely Maren Jensen, but she faded from prominence during the show’s run and had entirely disappeared by time it ended; I’ve never heard an explanation for why.) You always knew that no matter how bad things got for the fleet, no matter what disasters befell our heroes, they had that relationship — a metaphorical pyramid, to continue the Egyptian motif — to rely upon. In Ron Moore’s Galactica, by contrast, every single relationship was completely dysfunctional. Not only could the reimagined Adama, Apollo, and Starbuck not rely on each other, they didn’t even like each other, at least in the early episodes of the show I saw. And that really bothered me. I got the point Moore was making — his thematic preoccupation was less about ancient astronauts than the paranoia engendered by 9/11, the notion that you literally can’t trust anybody — but I didn’t like it. That’s not how I view the world, or at least not how I want to to view it.

But getting back to Larson’s original, there’s a funny thing about that comforting sense of family the show generated: I’ve found it extends into the real world as well. When I attended the first Salt Lake Comic Con a year ago, the celebrity guests I was most pleased to meet turned out not to be the star attractions — William Shatner and the legendary comic-book creator Stan Lee — but rather three cast members from Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica: Richard Hatch (Apollo), Dirk Benedict (Starbuck), and Noah Hathaway (Boxey). I’ve found that I’m relatively composed in meeting celebs, but these three, in particular, were easy for me to talk to. I won’t say it was like I’ve known them my whole life, because that sounds a little too creepy-stalkerish, but that’s not an entirely inaccurate way of describing it. Meeting these guys was like… being introduced to far-flung cousins. You don’t actually know them, but you nevertheless feel a sense of connection with them. They were like family, in other words. And I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I cherished the few moments I spent chatting with them. I owe Glen Larson for that experience, and for the hours and hours of enjoyment, escape, inspiration, and yes, comfort that his work has brought me over the last 35 years.

And so, Glen, wherever you may be tonight, I raise a goblet of thousand-yahren-old ambrosia to you. I hope those Beings of Light were waiting for you in the end…


Friday Evening Videos: “The Last Goodbye”

This week’s selection is something a little different, not least of which because I can’t actually embed the video here. You’ll have to click through to this page to see it. The song you’ll hear there is “The Last Goodbye,” written and performed by the actor Billy Boyd and which will play over the end credits of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies when it opens next month. Five Armies is, of course, the concluding chapter of Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on JRR Tolkien’s beloved The Hobbit, and Jackson’s sixth epic film set in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

I’ll confess that I haven’t been anywhere near as captivated by the Hobbit films as I was with the earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy. I think Jackson made a tremendous mistake in trying to expand a relatively modest children’s book into a sprawling epic. The story could’ve been told in one or possibly two films at most, and probably in much more concise films (i.e., shorter ones), too. The result is that the Hobbit trilogy feels much like Bilbo Baggins described himself in The Fellowship of the Ring: stretched thin like butter scraped over too much bread.  Where The Lord of the Rings trilogy carried the joy and wonder of discovering a place we somehow always knew existed but never thought we’d actually see, the Hobbit movies have a tired, been-there-done-that quality to them. Honestly, I don’t even remember the first two with any degree of clarity (I only saw them once each, as opposed to the LOTR trilogy, which I’ve watched several times), and I view the coming of the third chapter with more a sense of weary obligation than enthused anticipation.

That said, Jackson’s vision of Middle-Earth does feel like a real place to me, as real in my mind and yet as tantalizingly inaccessible as Tatooine or the bridge of the original starship Enterprise, or the hometown I grew up in that is now so changed I no longer recognize it as the place I once roamed on my red Schwinn with the banana seat. And knowing that The Battle of the Five Armies is the last time we’ll get to visit this wonderful landscape — at least as its been realized by Jackson and his people — saddens me. Billy Boyd’s song and the video that accompanies it — currently an Entertainment Weekly exclusive, hence the need to click over to that page — capitalizes on this sentiment. And it’s devastatingly bittersweet and lovely.

If you ever loved the cinematic Middle-Earth, even if you’ve grown weary of hobbits and orcs after five movies… give it a view.





Answering Proust

Vanity Fair magazine closes every issue with a one-page feature called “The Proust Questionnaire,” a series of stock questions asked of a celebrity or public figure in hopes of eliciting some deep insight into that person’s character… or at least a witty response. In other words, it’s essentially the same thing as all those quiz-things that used to get passed around during the golden age of blogging, those things we called “memes” before “meme” came to mean something else. I’ve often toyed with the idea of making the VF questions into a blog post (which of course I fantasized would go viral and become Something Big!), but I’ve never gotten around to it… and now I don’t have to, as somebody else has already done it.

Before I get to the actual questions though, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit I had only a vague impression of who Proust even was until about ten minutes ago. I knew he was a writer of some renown, but that’s about it. I know, I know… for a guy with a BA in literature, there are some pretty significant holes in my literary knowledge. Anyhow, for the benefit of my fellows in ignorance, Marcel Proust was a French novelist, critic, and essayist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (1871-1922, to be precise). He’s best known for a massive novel called Remembrance of Things Past (or, in more recent translations, In Search of Lost Time), as well as, of course, the questionnaire that now bears his name.

The questionnaire was actually a common party game in Proust’s day. The reason it came to be named for him is because he recorded his answers in something called a “confession album,” which has survived to this day (it was sold at auction in 2003 for over 100,000 euros). There are actually two known surviving sets of answers attributed to Proust, the first from 1885 or thereabouts, and the second from 1890, when Proust was a teenager and a young adult, respectively. What follows is questions from both versions, as well a modernized set of questions which is similar to the one used by Vanity Fair. I’ve crossed out the redundant ones, and I’ll try to keep my answers reasonably concise.

The First Questionnaire

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Indecision. Guilt. Regret.

Where would you like to live?

In a house with a broad porch made for sittin’, located on a quiet country lane in a small town that’s not too far removed from the amenities of an urban center… basically an idealized version of the place I grew up in. (I grew up in a farm town where you saw nearly as many tractors and horses going down the road as cars and pickups, but we were only 20 minutes away from Salt Lake when you needed or wanted something from the city.) Oh, and it’d be nice if there was running water, like a creek or something, nearby.

What is your idea of earthly happiness?

Warm sunlight on my face and nothing on the agenda.

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?

Meaning, I suppose, what are my biggest faults? (The Victorian-era wording of some these…)  Um, procrastination and a tendency toward melancholy.

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?

Captain James T. Kirk, Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Mr. Spock; Han Solo and Luke Skywalker; Indiana Jones; John Carter of Mars; Dirk Pitt; Roland Deschain of Mid-World; Flash Gordon; the Vampire Lestat; Snake Plissken; and Bugs Bunny

Who are your favorite characters in history?

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, Butch Cassidy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Howard Hughes, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Samuel Pepys

Who are your favorite heroines in real life?

Pancho Barnes, Nellie Bly, Dorothea Lange, Sally Ride, Lauren Bacall, Jane Goodall

Who are your favorite heroines of fiction?

Ellen Ripley; Leia Organa; Thelma and Louise; Neil Gaiman’s Death; Mrs. Anna Madrigal

Your favorite painter?

I couldn’t choose just one, so: Drew Struzan, Frank Frazetta, Alberto Vargas, Olivia De Berardinis, Edward Hopper, and Rembrandt

Your favorite musician?

Rick Springfield

The quality you most admire in a man?


The quality you most admire in a woman?


Your favorite virtue?


Your favorite occupation?

Not sure if this is what this item is asking for, but of the occupations I’ve held, movie projectionist.

Who would you have liked to be?

Who, as opposed to what? Um… just a better version of myself, really.

 The Second Questionnaire

Your most marked characteristic?

My manly beard.

The quality you most like in a man?

The quality you most like in a woman?

What do you most value in your friends?

Their support.

What is your principle defect?

Worrying too much about what others think.

What is your favorite occupation?

What is your dream of happiness?

A leisurely life spent pursuing the things I want to do, rather than most of my time going to The Man just to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly.

What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes?

To be alone and living on the street.

What would you like to be?

Independently wealthy

In what country would you like to live?

I thought SamuraiFrog’s answer was pretty good: A better version of the United States.

What is your favorite color?


What is your favorite flower?


What is your favorite bird?

I’m rather fond of owls.

Who are your favorite prose writers?

Stephen King, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Armistead Maupin, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Anne Rice

Who are your favorite poets?

Leiber and Stoller

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

Who are your favorite heroines of fiction?

Who are your favorite composers?

John Williams, John Barry, James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith

Who are your favorite painters?

Who are your heroes in real life?

Who are your favorite heroines of history?

What are your favorite names?

Um… never really thought about it.

What is it you most dislike?

Willful ignorance, as well as the ingrained distrust of intelligence and education that runs through American society.

What historical figures do you most despise?

Senator Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, Newt Gingrich (whose scorched-earth tactics against the Clinton administration led directly to the broken and utterly toxic state of American politics today), Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld.

What event in military history do you most admire?

In terms of the bravery of the young men who crewed the (relatively primitive) planes and the sheer scale of the operation, the allied bombing campaigns against the Third Reich, 1942-44.

What reform do you most admire?

Theodore Roosevelt’s trust-busting activities (wish we could find that level of progressive, anti-corporate, anti-plutocracy outrage again!) and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, in particular the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), both of which ought to be revived and set to work on America’s crumbling infrastructure, in my opinion.

What natural gift would you most like to possess?

The ability to draw something more realistic than a stick figure.

How would you like to die?

Heroically saving the Earth.

What is your present state of mind?


To what faults do you feel most indulgent?

What is your motto?

“It is what it is.”

The Modernized Version

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

No responsibilities, no obligations.

What is your most marked characteristic?

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

First in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

What is your greatest fear?


What historical figure do you most identify with?

Ernie Pyle.

Which living person do you most admire?

Jimmy Carter.

No, seriously. The guy left the White House a virtual disgrace, as disliked by many of his fellow Democrats as he was by the Republicans who defeated him. But rather than just disappearing from public view, Carter went on to become a globetrotting diplomat and tireless advocate for human rights, peaceful resolution to conflict, and aid for the poor. He strikes me as a rare example of a genuinely good man who is striving to better the world, and a even rarer example of a successful second act.

Who are your heroes in real life?

Explorers, scientists, journalists, and philanthropists. And, I’ll admit, the occasional movie star…

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Lack of confidence.

What is your favorite journey?

The walk down the jetway… both leaving and coming home.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?


Which word or phrases do you most overuse?

Not sure, but probably it’s probably got four letters.

What is your greatest regret?

Disappointing myself.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

I’d undo all the damage caused by my uncle Louie’s fight with ALS.

What is your most treasured possession?

My 1963 Ford Galaxie, which my dad and Uncle Lou restored for me when I was 17 years old, right after he was diagnosed the disease that would kill him.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?



Philae Taking the Big Sleep

Last night, probably around the time I was writing my previous post on the subject, Philae’s batteries dropped below operational levels and the lander entered what is called an idle mode — not completely dead, but no longer functioning, with all of its scientific instruments and most of its onboard systems shut off. Its primary mission is over after 57 hours on Comet 67P. However, before “going to sleep,” Philae did transmit all of its data, including results from the drill test, which ESA scientists decided to attempt after all. Also, engineers went ahead with the attempt to rotate the lander and managed to turn it 35 degrees, bringing a larger solar cell into the light. Current is flowing, albeit slowly, and its possible — if unlikely — that the batteries will recharge enough to awaken the lander at some point in the future. In the meantime, the mission is being called “hugely successful,” in spite of the various setbacks.

The Rosetta orbiter still circling above is now backing into a higher orbit and will continue to study 67P for the next year, hoping to learn more about how comets actually work and, of course, what they’re made of, as the comet comes into close approach around the sun and grows a tail. As comets are believed to be leftovers from the formation of our solar system nearly 5 billion years ago, it’s hoped that Rosetta’s data will provide insight into how that process took place, and perhaps whether comets had anything to do with the origin of life here on Earth.

You can read more detail about Philae’s mission in ESA’s wrap-up here. And here are a few other interesting little tidbits:

  • The web comic xkcd did something cool on Wednesday, a series of cartoons created throughout the day to illustrate illustrating Philae’s descent and landing in real time, and which all flow together to create a “virtual flipbook.” I am amazed at the poignancy and warmth xkcd’s creator pulls out of simple line drawings. Even though it’s silly to anthropomorphize a machine with no actual personality or intelligence, you can really imagine Rosetta and Philae having these exchanges of dialog and emotion.
  • I reported the other day that Comet 67P was two-and-a-half miles across and shaped like a duck, but what does that really mean? Well, take a look at this graphic that superimposes the comet over downtown Los Angeles…
  • And finally, here’s a video from ESA depicted the long journey of Rosetta and Philae, from their mutual launch back in 2004 through the projected end of the mission a year from now, in December 2015:

Look at what we did. Not too bad for a bunch of clothes-wearing apes, eh?


Stardancer Now Available!

Oh, in all the excitement over landing on comets, I neglected to mention that Kelly Sedinger’s novel Stardancer — a.k.a. Princesses in SPACE!!!!! — is now available for purchase from Amazon!

It’s kind of weird to say this about a guy I’ve never even met in the flesh, but having followed the whole process on his blog — from him deciding “I’m going to write a novel” through “Hey, I finished my novel!,” “I’m now shopping my novel around to publishers and agents,” and finally “To hell with those guys, I’ll release it myself!” — I feel genuinely proud of Kelly for accomplishing what he set out to do. I know he doesn’t care for the movie, but I keep thinking of what Edward James Olmos says to Harrison Ford toward the conclusion of Blade Runner: “You’ve done a man’s job, sir!” And indeed he has. A big, big job, done well. I wish him a lot of success with this, even as he moves on to the next project, as a smart, working writer does.

The book is currently available only in dead-tree paperback form, but a Kindle version is on the way, and Kelly is investigating other e-book platforms as well. As far as I know, is the only place to get the book. And hey, there are only 39 shopping days left until Christmas, so you’d better get to ordering!


The Latest…. from… Spaaaaaaaaaaaace

Sorry for the silly title. That’s just how I roll sometimes.

Anyhow, if you haven’t been following the story, there’s been a lot of news from Comet 67P since the Philae lander made its giant leap for robotkind on Wednesday, and some of it, I’m sorry to say, is quite disappointing. But first, here’s this:

Philae's CIVA instrument captured this image of its landing sitePhotograph: European Space Agency/AFP/Getty Images

That is the very first image taken from the surface of a comet. The metal doohickey you see at the bottom (more-or-less) center is one of Philae’s three landing-gear “feet,” and surprisingly the surface appears to be solid and rocky (there was some expectation that it would be powdery, or a mixture of ice and gravel loosely packed like a snowcone). So there’s an interesting discovery right off the bat.

Scientists with the ESA have determined that the lander bounced not just once as I wrote the other day, but twice after its initial contact with the surface, each time settling slowly back down in the super-low gravity while the comet rotated beneath it, finally coming to rest some distance away from the planned landing zone. Nobody’s certain exactly where on 67P it ended up; the ESA crew has used cameras on the orbiting Rosetta probe to try and pinpoint Philae’s location, but haven’t had any luck spotting it. In addition, Philae apparently landed on its side, with one landing leg sticking up into space, and none of the systems designed to anchor it to the surface functioned. It’s just sitting there, possibly precariously — there was even some concern at one point that using the drill to dig out a core sample could dislodge the lander and send it back into space.

Most worrisome though is the fact that Philae isn’t receiving enough sunlight to recharge its batteries — its solar panels are shaded by tall landscape features around it, outcroppings or maybe cliff walls, and power levels are dropping rapidly. It’s expected the lander will flatline early Saturday. Possibly as the comet nears the sun in a few months, the panels might charge enough to restart Philae, but that’s probably a long shot. One possibility the engineers are considering is trying to spin up an internal flywheel that helped Philae orient itself in space; it’s thought that the flywheel might provide enough torque to reposition the probe and bring the solar panels more into the light, but again it’s probably a long shot. The mission is most likely going to be much shorter than originally hoped.

On the positive side, the lander is working. The various instruments are all functioning, collecting and transmitting data back to Rosetta for relay to Earth. I can’t wait to find out what we’re learning from it.

Meanwhile, in other space-related news:

  • NASA’s Orion capsule, the spacecraft that’s supposed to take astronauts back to deep space, whether that means to the moon or on to Mars or someplace else, arrived at Cape Canaveral on Wednesday. It’s since been mounted on top of a Delta IV Heavy booster rocket and moved to the launch pad in preparation for its first unmanned test flight, which is scheduled to occur on December 4.
  • The NTSB is still investigating exactly what happened that led to the disintegration of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, but accounts are emerging of what test pilot Peter Siebold endured on his way back to Earth. Essentially he was thrown clear as the rocketplane broke up around him at 50,000 feet — twice the height of Mount Everest. The air at that altitude is very thin and very cold — minus-70 degrees Fahrenheit — and Siebold and his copilot, the late Michael Alsbury, were not wearing pressure suits, so he lost consciousness within seconds. Fortunately, his parachute deployed automatically and Siebold woke up in the lower, denser atmosphere as he neared the ground. What an incredible survival story…
  • And finally, Orbital Sciences, the company whose Antares rocket had to be self-destructed shortly after lift-off, says it believes a turbopump in one of the rocket’s two motors malfunctioned, leading a loss of thrust. The engines on this rocket are actually old Soviet surplus from 1970s, and Orbital has had problems with them before. As of now, the company says it will no longer use these engines and will retrofit its other Antares with newer propulsion systems, and hopes to get the Antares flying again in 2016. In the meantime, Orbital is negotiating with other launch providers to help them fulfill their cargo-delivery contracts with NASA.